Heather Birrell’s Mad Hope is an irreverent, moving blend of stories that dovetail into one another, revealing reverberations and reoccurring details that shine a light on the universal through the minutiae of individual existence. On the one hand, events froth continuously in a series of vivid remembrances and altering viewpoints, a mash-up of the writing prompt Maddie receives in “Dominoes” to fashion a story out of “a clear, quirky, luminous incident” and her confusion over her storytelling role: “my story (your story?).”
Defiantly, and refreshingly, Birrell sidesteps the “shoulds” of short story writing. There is rarely a definable beginning and ending to her kaleidoscope of situations, and those looking for a traditional sense of unity or a tidying moral will be summarily bewildered. However, Birrell grounds the jauntily shifting tales with an eye for repeated, evocative images and her morbidly inventive imagination, conjuring settings and situations lorded over by death and other dark dealings. Incidents are peppered with purplish bits of black humor, the desperate-to-conceive protagonist of “Wanted Children” describing an overcast afternoon as “the sort of day bad men chose to bury body parts.” And Birrell so deftly handles her unique, zippy imagery — exploding on the page like pop rocks — that one can forgive her propensity for pat, albeit evocative coincidence and convolutions due to the frenetic shifts in time, place, action, and perspective (especially confounding, but nevertheless rewarding, is the final story, “Impossible to Die in Your Dreams”). Adjectives rub up against each other in strange, revealing ways (“pretty, atrocious face”), and Birrell has a knack for making even the most familiar locations and circumstances (pregnancy being a prevalent theme) seem exotic, even dangerous.
Birrell’s environmental consciousness and bottomless empathy are on full display, but she never oversentimentalizes. For instance, one of the most accomplished stories in the collection, “Frogs” – palpable in its veracity for anyone interacting with teenagers on a daily basis – handles the topic of abortion through a multicultural lens, which bypasses moralizing in order to deliver a tough, poignant candor. Ultimately, the stories in Birrell’s collection will challenge you, entertain you, and keep you always on the razor’s edge of revelation—that cusp of hope where we all dance, madly.
By Heather Birrell
Coach House, 2012